Stem cells from a pricked finger

Professor Jonathan Loh (right) and a member of his team working with the cultured blood cells (inset). These blood cells are placed in a special culture to encourage growth of the cell type that will later be induced into stem cells. Photos: June Yang
Blood cells in a special culture to encourage growth of the cell type that will later be induced into stem cells. Photo: June Yang
Published: 4:13 AM, March 21, 2014
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SINGAPORE — A pinprick of blood may be all that is needed in the future to gather enough material to grow replacement organs.

Scientists at A*STAR’s Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology have developed a method to create human stem cells out of a minuscule amount of blood.

Pluripotent stem cells are cells that have the potential to develop into any kind of cell in our body, making them a powerful tool for biomedical research.

Usually found only during the earliest stages of embryo development, scientists in recent years have developed methods of juggling the biochemistry of adult human cells so that they behave almost like embryonic stem cells.

Up till now, however, the methods for creating these human-induced pluripotent stem cells have required invasive techniques such as taking pieces of skin or drawing several millilitres of blood from a vein.

What Professor Jonathan Loh’s lab has done is improve the method of isolating cells suitable for induction from the blood. “Basically, we’ve miniaturised the whole process,” he said.

In the traditional method, blood is centrifuged to separate the red blood cells, which have no cell nucleus and cannot become stem cells, from a thin layer of mononuclear cells that can become stem cells. This requires a relatively large volume of blood and can be technically tricky.

The method developed by Prof Loh’s lab chemically treats a very small amount of blood — about ten microlitres, or one drop — to lyse the red blood cells.

The remaining cells are then incubated in a special solution that encourages the growth of only the type of cell that they want to isolate.

In this way, the scientists can end up with a large volume of cells to induce into stem cells, even with a small starting blood sample — no more than a drop from a simple prick test that almost anyone can do.

Said Prof Loh: “The donors can do it themselves, outside the lab environment, in the home environment, and this blood can be collected in tubes with anti-coagulant so it doesn’t clot and can be sent to the lab.”

The lab has applied for a United States patent for their findings, which were published in the Stem Cell Translational Medicine journal this week.

One of the first uses of this technique will be to restore sight: Prof Loh’s lab is seeking to work with the Singapore Eye Research Institute, where they hope to test out growing human retinal cells to replace those damaged by age-related macular degeneration, one of the leading causes of blindness in Singapore.

The ease of this new technique means that it will also become much easier for research scientists and doctors to build up a bank of human stem cells that stretch across large cross-sections of the population.

With this, it is easier to conduct studies for disease, for example, or study the effects of drug toxicity on different sections of the population. Prof Loh’s lab is working with local clinicians to build a library of local patient’s cells for clinical testing. One of the initiatives involves getting samples from the National Neuroscience Institute of patients suffering from Alzheimer’s, for example.

“We focus on age-related diseases like Alzheimer’s, we focus on AMD, that’s where (Singapore has) very strong research in,” said Prof Loh.

“In anticipation of the silver tsunami, a lot of our research is geared towards age-related diseases.”

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